December 23, 2007

Movie Review: National Treasure: Book of Secrets

In 2004 producer Jerry Bruckheimer ushered a new action/adventure hero onto the screen with the help of director Jon Turteltaub and writers Cormac and Marianne Wibberly. It came in the guise of Nicolas Cage playing treasure hunter Benjamin Gates. It was greeted by an enthusiastic audience and was deemed a hit, making a sequel all but assured. The wait is over and the second adventure of Ben Gates is here, and it is equally, if not more, ridiculous to its predecessor. Both films play out as a something of a modern day, dumbed down Indiana Jones. That isn't to say they are bad, but they do require a good deal of suspension of disbelief. If you have it in you to let the highly implausible situations slip by, you will find a fun adventure that is safe for the whole family. How often does that happen these days?

As I think back to the first outing, I seem to recall not having a lot of love for that film. For some reason I walked away from that with a bad taste in my mouth. Now, I have not seen it since that theatrical viewing, three years ago, but thinking back I don't know why. It certainly wasn't a bad movie, and while it has faults (some of which carry over to Book of Secrets) it has certain charms. This is not about that first film, let's move along, shall we?

In the first film, Ben was on the hunt for a treasure hidden by the forefathers of America. He followed a complex series of clues and was aided by Riley Poole (Justin Bhartha) and museum curator, and love interest, Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger). In Book of Secrets, Gates is reunited with both Abigail and Riley as the story takes on a decidedly more personal bent. The stakes are higher, and the film is stronger as a result.

National Treasure: Book of Secrets opens with Ben and his father, Patrick (Jon Voight), giving a lecture regarding Ben's Great Grandfather Thomas Gates' involvement with the assassination of President Lincoln following the Civil War, and how his actions helped to preserve the young nation. Problems arise when a fellow named Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris) shows up with one of the long thought lost pages from John Wilkes Booth's diary which seems to implicate Thomas as one of the, if not the mastermind, conspirators of the assassination. Obviously, Ben and Patrick are devastated by the defamation of their family name. Ben then sets out to prove that Thomas is innocent, that he was just attempting to hide the treasure that could have tipped the balance of power during the Civil War.

Now is about the time that you should give up on any illusion of believability. If you take everything at face value and go along with the flow, you will be rewarded with a movie that is pure popcorn cinema. It goes down easy, and gives the illusion of a history lesson as it mixes historical fact with historical fiction. If you try to apply actual logic, you will end up with a headache and too many questions with too few answers. This is not to say it is a great film, it still winds up in the mediocre range, but it is enjoyable enough for the whole family, and sometimes that is all that matters.

More and more often we see films targeted towards the PG-13 rating, which is believed to be the holy grail of box office success. We will often hear of films that are cut to avoid an R and sometimes have footage added to get to the PG-13. Then, when films are rated PG, they tend to be targeted at younger children or at tween girls. Noticing those trends makes films like the two National Treasures all the more rare, and in a way welcome, at the cineplex. This movie offers up high action and adventure that is exciting, yet does not resort to language or any truly extreme violence. Yes, you see fights and guns, but you will not see anyone killed (not that I recall anyway). It is true that National Treasure is good for the whole family and does not feel that it has been sanitized to get the rating.

A family friendly adventure is about all that this is good for. Yes, it is exciting, but it makes no sense. Once you start wondering just how this adventure clears his Great Grandfather, ot how the centuries old mechanisms still work, or how come Boothe and his cronies were involved in finding the lost city of gold is beside the point. Bigger than all of that is the ease with which Ben Gates is able to interpret the puzzles, a problem carried over from the first film. You cannot imagine how frustrating it is to listen as Cage talks out the riddles and puzzles and has a seemingly unrelated answer in a matter of seconds.

The cast is strong, and while the movie tends towards the weak it is pretty obvious that they all had fun. Helen Mirren, as Ben's mother, clearly had a good time cutting loose after playing the title character in The Queen. Cage, Bhartha, Kruger, Voight, Harris, and Harvey Keitel all rumble through this film as if its an amusement park. It is their enthusiasm that translates to positive energy in the audience, effectively winning them over as the wildly implausible plot plays out.

Bottomline. Yes, I had fun. It is worth seeing on the big screen if you thirst for some big goofy action, and especially if you want to take the family. Just brush off the wackiness and enjoy it for what it is. I just wonder how many people are going to head out and try to find these places for real?

Mildly Recommended.


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